- Putin’s recent nuclear threats have prompted a range of responses from key players in the war.
- One expert told Insider that Putin likely hoped to cause confusion and uncertainty with his warning.
- Still, analysts say the risk of nuclear warfare remains low, despite Putin’s escalation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinly-veiled nuclear threat last week has set the world on edge — accomplishing exactly what he hoped it would, according to experts.
Despite the brazen escalation, experts and analysts alike have said in recent days that the threat of nuclear war remains minimal.
“There are a bunch more steps he would take to convince the world of his seriousness and put pressure on Ukraine and the West before using nuclear weapons,” said Paul D’Anieri, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside and the author of “Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War.”
But that doesn’t mean Putin won’t invoke his nuclear arsenal to sow fear in the meantime.
Putin likely has little desire to risk World War III seven months into Russia’s war in Ukraine. But his televised threat last week certainly calls to mind the country’s trove of more than 5,000 nuclear warheads and its cache of rockets, missiles, and artillery shells.
Putin intensified his nuclear threats in a speech last week during which he announced a partial mobilization order, conscripting hundreds of thousands of reservists in a move he hopes will give his depleted army a triumphant boost on the battlefield. But experts say the call-up in conjunction with the nuclear threat has also narrowed the range of acceptable outcomes that Russia could reasonably consider a victory.
“The conscription has turned this war into a war that Putin can’t really afford to lose,” D’Anieri told Insider. “That fact increases the likelihood that he would do something really drastic like use nuclear weapons.”
Putin’s threat raises the stakes for several key players in the conflict.
Ukraine has always had the most to lose in this war, and the renewed threat of nuclear warfare only further reinforces what’s at stake for the country.
Despite experts’ assessment that the likelihood of an impending Russian nuclear display is slim, Ukraine offered an alarmist assessment of the danger this week.
In an interview with The Guardian, Vadum Skibitsky, a deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, put the probability of Russia hitting Ukraine with a tactical nuclear weapon at “very high.”
“They will likely target places along the front lines with lots of [army] personnel and equipment (sic),” he told the outlet. “In order to stop them we need not just more anti-aircraft systems, but anti-rocket systems.
The military official offered no evidence for his claims and officials in his organization have repeatedly spread baseless theories. But Ukraine may have good reason to be alarmist, as many analysts believe Putin’s nuclear invocation is also an attempt to manipulate the US into limiting its support for Ukraine.
“Putin is now upping the ante and he’s counting on the fact that we won’t go to nuclear war for Ukraine which will get the West to tell Ukraine to negotiate a solution that is basically a Russian victory,” D’Anieri said.
A blatant nuclear reminder, Putin hopes, might scare the West into ramping down or discontinuing its aid to Ukraine, experts posited — aid that has helped Ukraine stage a series of recent victories.
“The beauty for him, I think, is that he believes he could nuke Ukraine and nobody in the West would want to nuke Russia in retaliation,” D’Anieri said.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has a motivation to play up the danger of nuclear war in an effort to curry even more support from the country’s Western allies who have nuclear weapons of their own.
The world is closely watching.
Putin has repeatedly hinted at Russia’s massive arsenal of nuclear power since the war began, but his most recent threat has prompted a more reactive response on the international stage.
President Joe Biden and other White House officials have publicly condemned the Russian president’s comments and privately warned the Kremlin of dire consequences should the country break the global non-use standard of nuclear weapons that has been in place since 1945.
In addition to issuing its own warnings to Russia, the US is also aiming to bring the global community into the fold of nuclear worry. Politico reported this week that there are increasing calls inside and outside of the Biden administration to urge China and India — two Moscow allies with their own access to nuclear weapons — to reign in Putin’s threats.
Meanwhile, US officials are reportedly following signs that Russia has changed the location of its nukes or their alert status, with no signs of such activity as of Thursday.
Putin’s threats have undoubtedly done exactly what he hoped they would, D’Anieri said, which is to stoke fear and confusion.
“I think what Putin in a way is trying to do, and probably succeeding in doing, is manipulating uncertainty so people in the West are now more worried about what might happen than he is,” he said.